SI Vault
Steve Wolf
April 13, 1981
Loaded bats, phantom DPs and balls doctored with everything from flour to fly-line cleaner may be illegit, but they're as much a part of the grand old game as, well, the spitter
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April 13, 1981

Tricks Of The Trade

Loaded bats, phantom DPs and balls doctored with everything from flour to fly-line cleaner may be illegit, but they're as much a part of the grand old game as, well, the spitter

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Most outfielders say that short-hopping a ball so that it looks as if it was caught is more an accident than an art form, but Coach Joe Nossek of the Indians actually tells his charges to hold up the ball after shoestringing it on the off chance that the umpire might be fooled. "Sometimes it's justice," says Nossek. "You get enough of those to make up for the catches that they mistakenly rule as traps."


Nossek is also the acknowledged master of that most arcane of baseball skills, sign-stealing. "Nossek probably knows our signs better than we do," said Bill Mazeroski, a Mariners coach last summer. "Sign-stealing is really a misnomer," says Nossek. "It's nothing more than educated guessing. You watch the opposing third-base coach, and then check out the manager, and things start falling into place. For instance, if you've been watching a team the first two games of a series and it hasn't tried anything in the way of stealing or the hit-and-run, and then you suddenly pick up a whole new series of signs, well, you just assume the runner's going, and you call a pitchout. If I'm right on 50 percent of my pitchouts, I-figure I'm doing pretty good. I'd trade a ball for an out anytime.

"I learned an awful lot from Gene Mauch when I coached under him at Minnesota. Plus, I picked up a lot of tips from other players. I'd trade tidbits of information. In general, a team's signs will follow the same pattern throughout the season. Eventually, you build up a pretty good book." Nossek is also good at anagrams and crossword puzzles.

There are more nefarious ways of stealing signs. When Martin was managing the Rangers, he was suspected of relying on electronics. He's said to have had a closed-circuit camera installed just beyond the centerfield fence in Arlington Stadium. The camera was hooked up to a television set in Martin's office, and a player, usually Jim Fregosi, would decipher the catcher's signs. When Fregosi had the code broken, he'd relay his findings to Martin via walkie-talkie. Martin would then be able to tell the batter what was coming by whistling or yelling a prearranged phrase.

But some batters don't want to know what's coming. Norm Sherry, a coach with the Expos, remembers a game against the Cubs in 1978. "Larry Cox was catching, and he was putting his signs down so low that I could see every one from the third-base box," Sherry says. "I told the guys, 'I've got all his signs.' Nobody wanted them."

Some clubs have trick plays. The White Sox will sometimes switch cutoff men on balls hit to the outfield to confuse base runners. First Baseman Mike Squires will move toward the mound as if he's going to cut off the throw, then circle behind the runner and take the throw at the bag. Sometimes they catch the runner in a rundown between first and second. Conversely, the Expos use a base-running ploy called the Sleeper Rabbit, thought up years ago by George Moriarty, third baseman on the Ty Cobb Tigers. With runners on second and third, the man on second takes his time walking back to second after the first pitch. By doing it a second time, he hopes to induce the catcher to throw to second. But just as the catcher releases the ball, the runners break for home and third. The Orioles have a special base-running ploy of their own known as "the famed play." The purpose is to score a run from third by having a runner at first draw a throw from the pitcher. The play, which is practiced during spring training in secret, has been used successfully in recent years against Cleveland, Chicago and Boston.

For some tricks, there is an equal and opposite re-trick. Carew, among others, doesn't like to be fenced in by the batter's box. He erases the back line of the box, so he can plant his rear foot pretty much wherever he wants. But then, some pitchers don't even bother to touch the rubber. One member of the Cub staff says he digs a deep hole in front of it and pushes off from there while in the stretch. "It gives an extra foot to my fastball." he says.

Occasionally, a pitcher will try to cheat on his pickoff move, but that's one trick umpires are always on the lookout for. "The important thing is to be consistent." says Pitcher Dave Roberts of the New York Mets. "or else the umpire will call you for a balk." Roberts suggests that a pitcher with a particularly good pickoff move confer with the umpires before the game or even in spring training, just to let them know what to expect. Pirate Reliever Enrique Romo has a very good pickoff move to first, but he's always being called for balks because he doesn't communicate with the umpires. When called for a balk, he gets angry, and the umpires only get angrier.

Chicanery isn't confined to players, coaches and managers. Sometimes, the home-team groundkeeper gets in on the dirty dealing. In Kansas City, George Toma makes the batter's box extra large because the Royals like to stand well back. In the early '70s, when the Tigers were very slow afoot, the Detroit ground crew would water down the base paths, particularly the takeoff area next to first, to neutralize the speed of opposing teams. By the same token, fast teams keep hard, fast tracks. Clubs that still play on living fields and have a lot of sinkerball pitchers keep the grass high to slow down ground balls. Good bunting teams keep the foul lines tilted inward. Artificial turf has taken much of the fun out of groundkeeping.

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